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Five ways for iOS developers to deal with Apple's new subscription guidelines

Over the weekend, Hulu subtly updated its iOS application to comply with Apple's revised in-app subscription guidelines. As Mike Schramm posted earlier, it removed the link on its main sign-in page that allowed users to visit hulu.com/plus to sign up for service.

Apple states in section 11.14 of the developer agreement that applications can provide access to material from subscriptions outside the application so long as the application doesn't provide an external purchase link -- this is a retreat from Apple's original position on subscriptions, which is that they had to give App Store sales 'most favored nation' pricing equivalence with sales from outside the system. Users can visit your website and sign up there, but if you sell from within the product, it has to go through Apple's in-app purchase system. Apple receives 30% of those sales.

Here's the current verbiage on the agreement:

11.14 Apps can read or play approved content (specifically magazines, newspapers, books, audio, music, and video) that is subscribed to or purchased outside of the app, as long as there is no button or external link in the app to purchase the approved content. Apple will not receive any portion of the revenues for approved content that is subscribed to or purchased outside of the app

For all we know, Hulu was okay with its change. After all, it won't have to fork over 30% of its app-sourced subscriptions to Apple. The conversion rate from free app to paid subscriptions through that link might have been very small indeed. At the same time, could Hulu have lived by the wording of the guidelines without sacrificing the sales push from app to site to signup?

TUAW brainstormed up five other ways Hulu might have played things. Here are our suggestions that developers might want to consider when facing the same guidelines and the same need to move forward to a compliant app.

Use indirection. Instead of providing a sales link, provide a help link. "Learn more about Hulu Plus" could transfer the reader to information about what Hulu Plus is. That in turn could convert to sales through a further link, without providing direct in-app links to a purchase page.

Downside: Apple isn't stupid. Unless the page truly provides information about the product rather than a sales pitch, you're better off avoiding the indirection.

Skip the link. So long as your text does not provide a live link or button, you should be able to specify how to sign up for service, e.g. "Interested in Hulu video access? Visit hulu.com/iwantmyhulu from any browser." If the URL isn't clickable, that's within the rules as written. It could even be more indirect than that, mediated by a search: "Want thousands of TV episodes at your fingertips? Use Google or Bing and search for 'Hulu Plus sign-up' to join."

Downside: Again, this might not make it through Apple review. While it respects the letter of the developer agreement, it certainly breaks the spirit. True, "button or external link" is a fairly clear guideline; a text URL without a hyperlink behind it is not a 'link' in the generally understood sense... but the App Store reviewers might not see it that way.

Promote the benefits. Speak to your users, explaining why subscription services would help them with your app from within the app. You can verbally and visually upsell your app, even adding buttons and screens that discuss "what subscribing to Hulu Plus can do for you," without ever linking to that external website.

Downside: Apple may determine that your sales pitch for materials not included in the basic application detract from the user experience.

Leverage social marketing. A "Tell a friend about Hulu Plus" link could send off an e-mail with all the information and links you need to explain the service and allow users to sign up.

Downside: Users might not get that the information on signing up for service is available for them as well as for their friends. It's a pretty indirect way to get your message and links across. Of course, there could be a 'Copy me on this email' checkbox in the Tell a Friend UI.

Be aggressively transparent. Hulu did not hide why its update shipped. In "What's New in Version 2.3.2" in iTunes, Hulu writes, "Compliance with new rules for subscription-based apps." At the same time, it didn't make a big deal about it on its home page. Was that a missed opportunity?

Websites can act as a bully pulpit as well as a sales tool. Front and center, Hulu might have described why the update shipped, i.e. to remove the link in order to comply with Apple's rules, and further promoted its product -- but it did not. As a large brand with excellent presence, it probably didn't need the extra push-to-monetize that website editorializing might have brought.

Downside: This is a really indirect way to gain sales that you used to promote through your product. Why tick off Apple publicly if you don't have to? On the other hand, Apple does respond to community pressure. If your cause is just and true, you shouldn't have to feel that you can't publicly stand behind it while still doing business with Apple.

So there you have it. Five suggestions that could help upsell your subscriptions without violating 11.14. Agree with these? Or do you think there are better ways to handle your sales pushes? Let us know in the comments.



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App Store iOS

Over the weekend, Hulu subtly updated its iOS application to comply with Apple's revised in-app subscription guidelines. As Mike Schramm...